“Television — A Vast Wasteland”

The fiftieth anniversary of a famous speech.

From Howard Kurtz on The Daily Beast, yesterday, May 11:

Newton Minow was in Washington last Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of the speech that shook up the broadcasting business, leading to the first educational children’s programming and eventually to PBS….

PBS, he said, “was an afterthought,” launched only after commercial television was entrenched. In Europe and in Japan, public programming came first and is taken as a given.

Minow no longer thinks TV is a vast wasteland, says he’s a news junkie and watches it all the time. He applauds the many choices available, but still believes there is a need for public television. “Why have libraries when we have bookstores? Why have parks when we have country clubs?” he asks with the air of a man who thinks the answer is self-evident.

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Howard Kurtz did not mention Canada, where the CBC, founded in 1936 in the days of radio, was by no means an afterthought, and where, once television started in 1952, it was a pioneer in high-quality, world-class Canadian productions until the late sixties. Since then there has been a steady decline in quality.

The time has come to re-examine the nature of public broadcasting in a new environment. CBC Radio has, on the whole, retained its standards – except in the vital field of classical music.

But television is the problem, not least because of the lethal cuts the corporation has suffered for more than twenty years, which the public has accepted without significant protest. Public broadcasting has ceased to be a matter of passionate debate and there is no evidence that the public considers commercial broadcasting, dominated by American imports, a “vast wasteland.” Nobody talked about it during the recent election campaign.

The public in English Canada seems to believe that, in the days of the Internet, the CBC, like the federal Liberal Party, has had its day, and would not mind if public television, other than the provincial educational channels, was reduced to the marginal role PBS plays in the U.S. In Quebec, it’s a different, far more positive story.

Changes in broadcasting policies have always been advocated by elites. The masses of television viewers are satisfied with things as they are.


8 responses to ““Television — A Vast Wasteland”

  1. In the case of the CBC, my hunch is that policy inertia is, on balance, its friend and not an enemy. Now is not the time to shine the spotlight.

    To borrow from a dialogue elsewhere, I am one of those that believe the CBC and Toronto is still paying for forcing a losing hockey club down the throats of Canadian’s every Saturday Night for much of the last third of the 20th Century.

    Speaking as its friend, it has missed many opportunities (especially News and Public Affairs) to look less like the “Annex/Forest Hill/Rosedale/St. Lawrence/Westmount/Sandy Hill/Rockliffe/Oak Bay” Broadcasting Corporation. Either Peter Mansbridge or Mark Kelly needs to broadcast from Calgary, not for a week or two, but for at least a whole year. Even when they do “remotes” in Alberta, I still detect the Toronto/elitist lens. (But not detest, I like to think of myself as a member).

    P.S. National Public Radio’s news funding is secure in significant measure to an endowment from the McDonald’s fortune (thank you Mrs. Krok). Should not the elites here step forward?


  2. Eric’s perspective is different from Mike’s. Both are evidently members of the same self-appointed elite, but Eric is not a bit concerned about this elite’s imposition of its standards on the rest of the country. On the contrary, he is so arrogant that he believes the country can only benefit from such an imperialist practice.

    No, he is upset by the fact that concealed public subsidies (e.g., tax benefits) and legislative protection (e.g., simulcasting) benefit the private system even more than the CBC, and by the other crucial fact that in television the national public system has been forced by the cuts and the need for advertising dollars – and for other disturbing cultural reasons – to become almost indistinguishable from its private competition and that, unless it becomes as distinct as CBC radio is from its competitors, it may not be worth saving in its present form.

    The “other disturbing cultural reasons” to which he refers so mysteriously above are these: CBC decision-makers have adopted commercial standards and are not sufficiently guided by the moderate cultural nationalism and the educational ideals that had inspired earlier generations and that are the raisons d’être of the CBC.

  3. Eric,
    Have you considered placing a bit more water in your whine? How are you linking the decision on “simulcasting” as a slap to the CBC. Sure, private broadcasters may benefit more, but the deal with the US to ensure US national advertisers did not get free eyeballs in Canada was a windfall for all Canadian broadcasters, advertisers, and taxpayers. Think of the promotion of public service/charities on the unsold airtime! There is more Canadian culture being voluntarily consumed by Canadian’s by choice (beyond a four channel universe), and by the rest of the world by choice. (Rita McNeil on Vienna commercial radio! Beiber and Bryan Adams fever in Mumbai! Royal Canadian Air Farce on Croatian TV! How many different countries are carrying “Little Mosque”? “Street Legal” was still circulating around the world a few years ago! CBC can take credit for nurturing dozens of the Canadian films (and their makers) I saw in video rental shops across Central and Eastern Europe! There are likely dozens more now with the growing popularity of the Documentary Film. The documentary channel is owned by the CBC….)
    I appreciate your emotional attachment with the institution of the CBC, but it must compete with other public broadcasters like TVO, and other producers of genuine Canadian culture on TV. To say it is indistinguishable and not worth saving is unfair. It has much to offer and can compete. Some commercial broadcasters have become more like the CBC in a narrowcasting universe. But, ummm errrr goly, 21st century Canadian culture is not a thirty-four part series on Kaiser Wilhelm’s contributions to the rise of the Saskatchewan CCF. So, who in the elites are prepared to leave the CBC an endowment???!


    Mike – the longwinded – (Who aims not see the past with rose coloured glasses)

    • Nobody in Canada is in the mood these days to define the public interest in television – the equivalent of Newton Minow’s parks and libraries – but if the extent of public support for private television was known it would raise eyebrows, to put it mildly. Public money should be spent for public purposes, not to enrich our own home-grown oligarchs. You are right: mandated simulcasting – and many other protections – benefit the entire system, but the fact remains that these measures have helped the Canadian oligarchs to become even richer while not slowing down the decline of the public enterprise.
      • • •  
      The CBC is not allowed to acccept endowments.
      • • • 
      Public broadcasting has to be elitist but must conceal it because the Zeitgeist demands egalitarian hypocrisy.
      • • • 
      To say MAY NOT be worth saving is not the same as IS NOT worth saving. Bloggers must be allowed rhetorical flourishes.

  4. Hey, Mike…

    Surely you don’t mean to imply that there is no virtue in looking back so that we are better able to look forward. Some of us think we’d be better off with a little more Kaiser and CCF before or after the frothy entertainment and hockey games. (Yes, frothy entertainment and hockey games are also important to the quality of everyday life but they’re everywhere.)

    The people making sellable international “light” stuff couldn’t also make convincing public affairs/history/drama if there was a bit of support for it? The CBC has become the lowest common denominator.

    My views are completely unbiased and independent, despite my last name.

  5. A Family gang up now?
    Three simple points.
    a)CBC is still producing great stuff relevant to Canadians and with an international market.
    b)It still receives a lot of taxpayers money
    c)Competition from other public as well as private broadcasters means it must seek other funding like endowments, in addition to more creative advertising packages and partnerships, to remain competitive serving the 21st century educated/engaged/still somewhat elitist audience.
    Can the rules be changed to permit endowments, and can it be done without opening up a “Pandora’s Box” of government funding/culture questions?

    • The CBC is a public enterprise. Like the Military. One does not say that the Canadian Military is “subsidized” by the Parliament of Canada. It is financed by it, according to appropriate legisslation.

      The Military does not accept endowments either.

      The question is not whether the CBC is competitive – with TVO or the BBC or Al Jazeera or CTV. The question is whether it performs the public service which the Broadcasting Act demands from it.

  6. PS: Is not the CBC a Canadian cultural Oligarch itself? Is it not the same oligarch that ensured that they and their friends obtained close to $1 billion in taxpayers dollars towards new cultural institution in the past decade, sinecures in these institutions, consulting fees, and CBC salaries paying for their fancy homes in the Annex, Rosedale, and the Beach?
    Mike (getting carried aware by flashes of rhetorical flourish)